Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

St. John's woman finds home away from home in Caribbean

Ruth Palmer describes Curaçao in the Caribbean as a little bit of Newfoundland away from home.
View of Willenstad, Curacao on August 29, 2013. (LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)

A few months ago, I was cleaning out a cabinet in my dining room.

I came across an old liqueur bottle of Blue Curaçao. I bought it years ago for some kind of martini recipe, but never used it again. Its flavour, as I recall, is pretty lip-pursingly bitter – and its colour not far off windshield-wash blue. Even though I'm not particularly fond of the drink, the island of Curaçao has always held a certain allure for me.  

Ruth Palmer is from St. John's, Newfoundland. She currently lives and works in St. Maarten in the Caribbean. She spent a year and a half working in Curaçao, a place that reminds her of her home. (Ruth Palmer)
It isn't as popular a getaway as other islands in the Caribbean and maybe that's the appeal. I haven't been there yet, but I had a preview this week from fellow Newfoundlander, Ruth Palmer, who has spent time there. In fact, she's been to a factory where they make Blue Curaçao.

In recent weeks, I've been tracking down Newfoundlanders and Labradorians living and working in interesting places around the world. I write a travel blog called Terra Nova Rover and I love a chance to learn about a new place through the eyes of an ex-pat. Ruth's St. John's-based sister heard about what I was up to and volunteered her adventurous sibling to give me a kind of virtual tour of the Caribbean island. 

Ruth Palmer was born on Topsail Road in St. John's, not far away from where her father's Volkswagen dealership operated near K-Mart back in the day. Palmer said her father was a gregarious salesman who "seemed to know everyone in the province."

After years in marketing on the mainland, Palmer followed in her father's footsteps. She got into sales too: selling vacation properties in the sunny south. Palmer now lives in St. Maarten, but just spent a year and a half working in Curaçao. Palmer said of all the travel she's done, Curaçao reminds her of home more than any other place.   

"Ahhh, the people are amazing. They work hard, they love to have fun. They love music. They love dancing and they're an awful lot like Newfoundlanders," said Palmer.

Imagine if we did have our very own territory in the Caribbean. A place to get away from the RDF and soak up a little Vitamin D. There's got to be some unclaimed tropical island where we could raise our flag? Sadly, we missed the chance long ago in Curaçao. 

Blue, pink, green houses

Curaçao is Dutch — an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Ruth Palmer says it's the island's maritime history, that gives it a Newfoundland feel. 

"It's a very colourful island like Newfoundland ... there's blue houses and pink houses, and green houses, because they were owned by marine merchants and they wanted to recognize their house from the boat," said Palmer. 

Fresh seafood is abundant in Curaçao and red snapper is recognized as one of the national dishes. A filet is often served with a corn-meal mush known as Funchi. 

Blue Curaçao liqueur. (Jane Adey/CBC)
Curaçao's marine life makes it a paradise for scuba divers and it's a popular destination for cruise ships, but tourism isn't the driving force for the island's economy. Palmer said a lot of people are involved in international banking and many work at a Venezuelan-owned oil refinery. The population is highly educated and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. 

Curaçao also has a major shipping port, a port that made the island a crucial link in the 17th century slave trade. More than 500,000 African slaves moved through the island and it was home to a slave depot. It's this history that Ruth Palmer finds both fascinating and emotional.

"When they came all the way across the ocean and they finally landed there, and they were skinny and sick from the long journey, they put them in this compound to get them fattened up and healthy so they could sell them all over South America," Palmer said.

"It was quite moving to walk through there and see that. They could have taken all of that history and maybe be very bitter about it but they're passionate about their history and they're proud of the things that they've accomplished." 

Honest curiousity

Palmer said it might be that painful history that makes people in Curaçao so down to earth.

She describes them as genuine with a true interest in other cultures.

"They want to know more about who you are than what you have," explained Palmer.

Palmer said of all the travel she's done, Curaçao reminds her of home more than any other place.

She believes that honest curiosity is another trait Newfoundlanders and Labradorians share with Curaçaoans. As well as their love of a good party in the great outdoors. 

"A typical Friday night local people go to the beach. They bring their food, they bring their music and they have a lobster boil like you would in Newfoundland." 

And as for the Blue Curaçao, Ruth Palmer gave me the story on that too. The Spaniards who came to Curaçao back in the 15th century brought with them the Valencia orange. But the desert like climate on the island changed the sweet, juicy oranges to a bitter, almost inedible fruit.  

Over time, the Valencias evolved into a smaller citrus fruit called a laraha. Even though the flesh is bitter, the peels are aromatic and flavourful. When dried and soaked with alcohol, the skins produce an orange-like liqueur. 

Palmer says she's very happy living in St. Maarten, but she does miss all the colour of Curaçao, including that bright blue drink. 

She has considered returning to the colour of Newfoundland and Labrador to retire some day. In the meantime, when Palmer gets homesick, she's happy to know there's a comparable Carribean replacement on an island not too far away.
Curaçao is a Dutch island in the Caribbean. (Ruth Palmer)

About the Author

Jane Adey

CBC News

Jane Adey hosts CBC Radio's The Broadcast, and has worked for many other CBC programs, including Here & Now, Land & Sea and On The Go.

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